It has been seven months since the Russian army invaded Ukraine. Most recently, the Ukrainians were able to win back large parts of their country. Now would be a good moment for us to pause and recap what the sanctions have brought about.
We have forgotten how to think strategically, writes Norbert Röttgen in his latest book. But that doesn’t mean we can’t practice it again. The motto of “lifelong learning” applies not only to steelworkers and seamstresses, but also to chancellors and ministers of war.
Seven months after the Russian army invaded, and just after the Ukrainians made serious gains, it would be a good moment to pause. Five lessons can be learned:
Lesson 1: You cannot avoid a military challenge by imposing economic sanctions on the aggressor. This change of playing field does not work. Political pacifism is immediately seen through by the attacking side and taken as encouragement.
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“The battle must be taken to the enemy,” American Vice President Dick Cheney knew after 9/11. Joe Biden knows that now too. The threat of the Americans to become involved not only economically but also militarily in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is his conclusion from the failed economic sanctions against Putin. In an interview with 60 Minutes, which aired over the weekend, when asked if US forces would defend the island, he replied: “Yes, if there were actually an unprecedented attack.”
Lesson 2: Economic sanctions work, but not as expected. In the rarest of cases, they lead to insight or even to a blatant weakening of the opponent. But they lead straight to self-injury of the defender, because in a free world the exchange of goods always takes place for mutual benefit.
This means that if I no longer buy someone else’s goods, I have to buy them somewhere else, either of lower quality or – see our gas imports – significantly more expensive. The sanctioned opponent of the war, on the other hand, immediately relocates its supply chains. In the worst case, he will have to give a price discount, but he will not go down.
Lesson 3: Putin has partners but not brothers in arms. The great powers surrounding him, neither Iran nor India nor China, are prepared to take up arms on his behalf. On the contrary: it is openly expressed that its battles in Eastern Europe are disrupting the actual mission of the emerging world powers, namely to organize the generation of prosperity for around two and a half billion people.
At the weekend, in the presence of the Chinese president, Putin had to express “understanding for his questions and concerns” about Russian politics. Indian Prime Minister Modi said to Putin at the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: “Today’s era is not one for war.” Now is not the time for war.
Lesson 4: The West has been fooled by Putin’s nuclear bomb threat. Neither in his own country nor within the Shanghai organization does Putin have the legitimacy to carry out such a devastating strike.
Only after the moment of shock had been overcome, which in this case lasted several months, did arms deliveries to the Ukraine really get going. The success is phenomenal. Ukrainian troops managed to recapture areas occupied by Russian troops in the north-east and south of the country, while the occupiers hastily withdrew. This applies above all to the region around the city of Kharkiv, but the first places in the neighboring region of Luhansk have also been recaptured.
Optimism is burgeoning in Ukraine and humor has returned. The High Command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces posted on Facebook: “In the past week we have received thousands of tons of ammunition as gifts from the Russian Armed Forces. Please note that we do not accept gifts from murderers, torturers, looters or rapists. In the coming days we will we give everything back.”
Lesson 5: Even in the hour of the common challenge, a developed nation state like the Federal Republic must not allow itself to be misled into assuming that from now on there will no longer be different interests.
Gerhard Schröder said no to the Iraq war. Solidarity, but not vassal loyalty, was his motto. The same must apply to Olaf Scholz in the case of America’s desired unbundling between Europe and China. The parties in the governing coalition would be well advised to listen to Klaus von Dohnanyi on this issue: “National interests are not nationalism.”
There are common values within the West, but they do not rule out conflicting national interests. The export nation of the Federal Republic should not repeat the same mistake in dealing with our major customer China – after the non-stop sanctions against Russia.
Conclusion: You are always smarter afterwards, as the saying goes. But the sentence only works if you also deal with “after” with “before” – and not just with the intention of justifying yourself. The following sentence by Bertolt Brecht also belongs on the German Chancellor’s desk: “Whoever says A does not have to say B. He can also recognize that A was wrong.”
Gabor Steingart is one of the best-known journalists in the country. He publishes the newsletter The Pioneer Briefing. The podcast of the same name is Germany’s leading daily podcast for politics and business. Since May 2020, Steingart has been working with his editorial staff on the ship “The Pioneer One”. Before founding Media Pioneer, Steingart was, among other things, Chairman of the Management Board of the Handelsblatt Media Group. You can subscribe to his free newsletter here.